“Life seems random when you’re young, the wish to travel the result of impulse and curiosity. Meandering is not the exception but the rule. But when you’re older you begin to see that a lifetime has a distinct plot.” -Paul Theroux
Because of my recent new brain injury, I don’t go out a lot. My balance is not good, and my mind wanders quite a bit, never staying on any topic for very long. But the 50th Anniversary edition of Travel & Leisure magazine arrived here this week, helping me focus for a while on the many amazing adventures I have experienced throughout my life.
First I came to an article entitled “50 Trips That Stood The Test of Time.” Since I have been a lifetime sojourner, I wondered which places they would choose as somehow timeless. I was surprised to see how many of these places I visited before they became popular with tourists, places like Beijing, Shanghai, Banff, Bangkok, The Raffles Hotel in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong long before China took over, Hawaii, Japan, Venice and even Aspen Colorado.
To this list I would add two of my favorite places in China, Xian and Guilin in the south. I will never forget a boat trip I took up the Li River to see the Karst Cliffs around Guilin in the early 1980s. It was a difficult but memorable trip on what I called “The People’s Ferry” up the Pearl River from Guangzhou to Wuzhou in 1984, a trip I learned about in the book China Off The Beaten Trail back then. When we got off the small ferry, the locals crowded around us to stare. I was a little bit afraid, but then a couple PRC government tourist followers stepped up to make certain we made our next connection on the bus to Guilin. At that time Wuzhou was quite a rough and backward looking place, like a town made of mud, and many there had never seen a Westerner before.
I also remember taking the train up through Malaysia from Singapore to Bangkok in the early 1980s. I clearly remember our stay at a very old, frightfully British hotel in Kuala Lumpur, one that has most certainly been torn down by now. The parts I remember are quite curious. I remember the unusual pewter table settings, soup before every dinner, and the old-fashioned Chinese waiters who stood nearby at all times in case we needed something. I remember the sweet tea on the train, filled with evaporated milk, and the vast areas of deforestation along the way, attributable to the expanding rubber industry at that time. But my most favorite and well-remembered place was the island of Penang, a true jewel just off the coast of Malaysia. In 1980 it was not touristy at all. I loved the multicultural feel of everything from the religions to the food! One gigantic curried prawn still sticks firmly in my memory 🙂 Penang is right up there with Venice, two of my favorite places EVER.
That quote at the beginning of this piece comes from a series of reminisces from the before mentioned magazine where well-known writers describe “The Places That Changed Us.” One thing I know for sure, every place I have been changed me. Every place I have lived or just hung out for a day or two, every person I met along the way whether friendly or not, every sight, smell or sound changes us to be more open and accepting of how others choose to interact in their world.
By “winning” a free trip to live in Bangkok in 1973, I was permanently changed. I had never lived in the tropics before or immersed myself in south Asian culture. Everything was new and different to me, starting with the Poinsettia trees outside my door! When I returned to Colorado College a few months later, I found it impossible to describe the totality of my experience to fellow students, telling them that it was a bit like going to the moon. I then switched my college major to Asian studies and pursued my goal until the beauty of that dream died a painful death in my late 20s.
But I have absolutely no regrets about any of my adventures, not even those that ended up being bad for my health. Live and learn! That is all we can do.